Viewtiful Joe is an… Attempt at a post-modern video game. I say ‘attempt’ because it’s not completely successful. The titular hero Joe is sucked from his real world into a movie world, but is unaware, and is never aware, that he’s already in a game. He never has to come to terms with the fact that as a character in a video game, everything he does is either the whim of a designer or the player. As he kicks, punches and pirouettes through enemy after enemy, we control him. He has no power other than which we choose to give.
Viewtiful Joe’s unique selling point, of course, is tied to it’s innovative decision to include 3 over the top ‘special effects’ – Slow, Mach Speed, and Zoom, which aim to have the effect of creating a ‘viewtiful’ situation on screen that you will have as much fun viewing as taking part in.
In a real life sparring, the enjoyment is gained through using all of the senses to fight your opponent. Your awareness of your breathing and the movement of your muscles are more important than how the battle looks to the outsider. With a move performed smoothly, you can feel it. Indeed, in most video games, the enjoyment is gained through the player’s attempt to use the interface to ‘master’ the game. When it comes down to it, everything else is just window dressing – the design of, say, Ikaruga is solid enough that if the entire game world could consist of boxes – as Noiz2sa easily proves.
Viewtiful Joe’s aim is to remove the line between enjoyment of sight and enjoyment of control. With the game in slow motion or zoom (or both at once) the action is slow enough, and close enough, for the player to take in exactly what is happening while still successfully controlling the action. At points this can be almost breathtaking, and a perfect synergy.
Therefore, Viewtiful Joe requires, and successfully implements a simple interface to facilitate this enjoyment of the visuals. Unfortunately, this has decreased the effort required to become perfect at what Joe does. After the first two levels, the player will have mastered the 3 abilities (Slow, Mach Speed and Zoom) available to Joe.
To create a challenge for the player, Viewtiful Joe reveals itself to have more in common with it’s stable mate P.N.03 than anyone would have thought. Where P.N.03 breaks visuals down to the barest possible so the player must concentrate on the grim, rhythmic pattern determination of the enemies. Viewtiful Joe over designs itself to mask the fact that the player must concentrate on the grim, rhythmic pattern determination of the enemies. That’s not to say one game is the more ‘honest’ – they just use differing techniques with an identical gameplay mechanic.
Dodge enemy attack, and respond in kind.
After each pattern is learned, perfection beckons. The Japanese school system’s best friend, rote learning, has become a core experience in this, and indeed, many other video games.
This may, or may not, be a cultural phenomenon.
Whereas P.N.03’s ‘zone out, tune in’ tempo disallows any puzzles to break the purity, Joe’s hyper kinetic, fast/slow dynamic is further complicated by a liberal smattering of puzzles across the game – ranging from the maddeningly obvious to the infuriatingly obtuse.
Should you perform these actions in a ‘viewtiful’ way, the way determined by the designers have designated as the most beautiful, efficient way to use the patterns of the game, you will be rewarded with a ‘Viewtiful’ rating. A less successful performance will result in a grade from A to D.
In a game where the enjoyment of the visuals is in equal proportion to the interaction, this seems like a grave insult. If the player likes what they see, the pressure of meeting the designer’s expectations seems like an entirely unfair one.
Indeed, the game itself does its very best to remove the player’s initial visceral thrill of the cel-shaded action of the game. In a game that attempts a post modern wink to the world of pulpy world of Tokusatsu films (after all, Joe’s transformation cry ‘Henshin!’ is the same as that of Kamen Rider) and their 'ganbatte' spirit, it’s unfortunate that as a player you are never allowed to forget that you are playing a game. Everything you do is graded, and everywhere you go has rules.
This could be forgivable if the action you were presented on screen allowed a continuously exciting level of distraction. Sadly, as soon as Joe has learned his skills, all thrill of the unknown is removed. Joe will perform the exact same moves in response to varying situations, until his lack of versatility leaves the player with only the design to concentrate on – resulting in frustration at it’s restrictive laws.
Joe’s movie world, similarly, is given little to no life of it’s own. It feels less like a world than the series of linear puzzles and platforms that it is. While in Joe I struggled to even notice that I was fighting my way through a creepy castle, in ‘Last Action Hero’, a movie which shares theme alone, Jack Slater (The Governator) reveals to us that every day an assassin lies in wait for him inside his bedroom, due to the way his world is written. That his son was murdered, entirely at the whim of a screenwriter.
Atsushi Inaba, Joe’s creator, seems unaware or disinterested in this kind of implication of creating a character that we must believe is real, interacting with a world that isn’t. As a result, Joe’s world and storyline are bland and forgettable. Indeed, the movie theme seems bolted on to give a reason for Joe’s otherwise unexplained abilities. The screen is cluttered with an intrusive HUD and the other directorial decisions (popcorn breaks, a director screaming ‘CUT’ after each death) are unnecessary and cliché. The one effect which is most pleasing is the screen filter once the player empties their ‘Viewtiful meter’ – the look of an overused print is quite wonderful and nostalgic for people who remember run down cinemas from their youth, showing Kung Fu flicks or the previous year’s blockbusters.
To add insult to injury, the game does not include an option for subtitles, so all deaf gamers, or even gamers who have to keep the sound down, will miss what little storyline there is.
It says more about the length of the game than the quality to note that, for one playthrough, on Kids level at least, my attention was held, by it’s frantic pace and admittedly pleasurable fighting segments. From that point on, the idea of endlessly replaying the game to meet the viewtiful rating on each level (a ranking, which, to add insult to injury, gains the player nothing except the hollow realisation that they are wasting their life) had lost all lustre in my eyes.
Viewtiful Joe, after all I have said, is not a completely bad game. However, with its tight rules, grading system, and loose and uninteresting plot, its failure to become anything more than a game leaves it drowning in mediocrity. Even it’s lone surprise moment, level 3’s side scrolling shooter, is woefully implemented, making me pine for the masterful experience included in Rares GB Battletoads.
Remembering the emphasis which Battletoads placed on rote learning, indeed it may be possible that there are simply balancing issues with Viewtiful Joe. While the fighting is too simple to stand on it’s own as an experience, it remains too complex to be paired with the effort of learning enemy patterns. After all, Battletoads gave the idea, possibly illusory, that you could reach a level of mastery where you would not need to remember the levels. “If only I’d been quicker.” I’d think to myself. “If only I’d seen that in time.” The burden of failure should rest on the player, and no game should punish the player for not being psychic, a punishment, it seems, Viewtiful Joe doles out regularly.
If you ignore the gradings and play through the game from beginning to end, Viewtiful Joe is a short, fast paced, no brain summer blockbuster type of game. Maybe that’s all Atsushi Inaba wanted to create. I, sadly, wanted more.
Mathew Kumar is never satisfied.
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